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NYFF 2020: ‘Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris’ Review: A Stunning Portrait of Meta-Textual Tension

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The most stressful film on offer at this year’s New York Film Festival is only 27 minutes in length, and it was intended as a pat documentary. In 1970, British documentarian Terence Dixon and cameraman Jack Hazan traveled to Paris to make what they believed was an intimate portrait of word-renowned cultural icon James Baldwin, who self-exiled from the United States in 1948 to the (relatively) more enlightened France. To any discerning eye today, however, what they actually did was corner this Black man within the spaces in which he felt comfortable, bombarding him with questions meant to decode this African-American intellectual to the same white audiences which he purposefully fled. The result is Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and meta-textual short-form documentaries ever made with such a famous face at its centre.

Some words that will likely run through contemporary viewers’ heads are “entitlement,” “arrogance,” and “body language” — but to be clear, the negative energy comes not from Baldwin, but from Dixon himself. In the first third of the film, the interviewer regularly inserts himself into the proceedings, either through withering narration or by literally stepping between Baldwin and the camera, in order to espouse his breathtakingly egocentric resentment that the author is not being ‘cooperative’ enough to suit the documentary’s needs. This section is dominated by still, pallid but nonetheless beautiful tableaus of a wintry Paris, which capture Baldwin moving through the spaces he has traversed for twenty years. From the top, one can tell something is wrong.

Through ravishing footage and inspired documentaries such as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, modern audiences are likely rather familiar with Baldwin’s look, energy, and mannerisms, and as Meeting the Man begins, it will be readily apparent to many that he is not comfortable with the project at hand. He keeps his posture alert, defensive, and resolute; the tension is palpable even in the shots composed from a distance. Dixon begins the film by narrating in an unnervingly indignant tone, as he caustically explains Baldwin’s spontaneous decision to film at the Place de la Bastille. Once arrived, Hazan focuses very closely upon the writer’s face, and the tension ratchets up to a stupefying level. 

Dixon presses Baldwin like a grade school teacher chastising an ornery pupil. The condescension and spite in his voice are barely veiled, and it is a simultaneously aggravating and painful experience to watch such a magnificent and renowned figure as Baldwin be subjected to such callous treatment. Hazan’s own recounting of the incident reeks of the same brazen entitlement and thinly-disguised fear of the Black intelligence before them; he describes some young Black men who come to Baldwin’s defense as having ‘imposed themselves’ on the film, when in actuality, it is the white filmmakers who are unscrupulously imposing themselves on one of the world’s most important and intellectually gifted human beings with trite, diminutive methods of questioning. It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl. 

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Miraculously, the ever-suave Baldwin remains present and collected, and though visibly repressing his desire to put these men in their place, he meticulously explains why the film is going off the rails. He seems almost at the point of tears as he tries to make Dixon see that there is an inherent problem with white filmmakers intruding upon Baldwin’s community of Black intellectuals and escapees, as if they are examples of, in his words, the “exotic survivor” of the same cruelty, racism, and ignorance dominating American and British societies. Baldwin is quick to point out that France is nowhere near perfect, but then alludes to the plight of the French Algerians as comparable to the African-American struggle. He posits that French metropolitan society is, at least, more readily familiar with and capable of frank discourse on racial tension and colonial history than the countries which produced figures like Baldwin, and Dixon.

While the New York Film Festival surely has many reasons to screen the crisp new 2K restoration of Meeting the Man, the film feels hyper-contemporary. The views and tensions expressed are immediately reminiscent of the more challenging and rewarding discourses that flourished all too fleetingly earlier this summer, regarding access, exploitation, fragility and honesty surrounding white people who engage with Black narratives. Dixon inadvertently presents himself as Exhibit A of the hopelessly ill-prepared, cocksure white filmmaker, who barges into Black spaces as if hunting an exotic beast, with the intent of capturing it, clipping it, and presenting it as a digestible curiosity for white society. 

Loudly embodying this neo-imperial arrogance with every move, Dixon hacks and slashes past the barriers Baldwin and his Black intellectual friends have set up for their own edification and protection, aided, albeit silently, by Hazan. The cameraman is implicated all the same as the film progresses, and few shots have sent a chill down my spine this year more than Hazan’s intrusive sweep through a meeting of young Black intellectuals in Baldwin’s cohort. This second section takes place in one of the writer’s friend’s apartments, a colorful space in which Black intellectuals young and old, male and female, commingle and discuss many wonderful subjects. As the men behind Meeting the Man enter this room, they stand over the others, staking out an unmistakably defensive position. Hazan’s lens peers at the assembled people like they are alien specimens; their demure expressions and clearly uncomfortable body language speak for themselves as he does so. 

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Luckily, the warmer atmosphere puts Baldwin more at ease, leading to some thoroughly compelling monologues filled with ingenious subtle references to the absurd approach the white filmmakers in the room have taken in trying to bottle his perspective for mass consumption. By the third and final section, in which Baldwin decides to sit down for a one-on-one interview, he is back at his characteristically genius level — though the intrinsic tension may be too much to bear for some viewers, Meeting the Man is certainly worth the watch to witness Baldwin express his truly unique mastery of the English language, ultimately undeterred by the miscalculations of the craft being constructed around him. He distills certain concepts, which should take the average writer hundreds of pages to express, into a single turn of phrase, and always matches it with a glance and a cadence perfectly suited to the substance of the point. Few people like Baldwin have ever existed, something the film makes remarkably clear.

Baldwin sums up the whole lamentable but illuminating situation best when he tells Dixon, “I am not at all what you think I am.” The meaning reverberates instantly, such that even the harebrained filmmaker pauses for a second before snapping back with a tone-deaf defense. Better yet, at one point Baldwin infers that Dixon’s conduct is pushing him dangerously close to expressing “what you don’t want to find out” — a note-perfect warning that if he has to go there, and explain what’s really going on when a white man interrogates a Black man’s decisions in such a manner, he will. In sum, though Meeting the Man is a harrowing watch, and an excoriating exhibition of why Black subjects need Black documentarians and cultural interpreters more often than not. It is also an invaluable and pertinent insight into the man’s disarming, enrapturing worldview, and testament to his resilience, unparalleled intellect, and unreserved pride in the face of all the world had to throw at him. While Dixon’s original intent for the piece is manifestly ill-conceived, Baldwin’s grace and presence make this a compelling and worthwhile piece, and one that comes highly recommended.

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